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Commissioned by the IAF, the review of Tom O’Brien’s installation was written by Alex Curtis who took part in our inaugural Emerging Architecture Writers (EAW) programme, run alongside Momentum.
by Alex Curtis
A week ago, I entered the Irish Architecture Foundation for the first time. Unknowingly, I placed my bag on Tom O’Brien’s table while checking in. Unsure of what I was looking at, I stopped, turned, and peered into his world before falling in.
On the first day, the room was filled with silence. I lazed on the central, weathered, and reincarnated teak bench. Seeming the most logical place to start, I sat and pieced through the surroundings one by one, unaware of the space as whole. From my wooden seat, I could hear Tom’s tractor chugging through the lanes of rural Tipperary. I felt the gouges in the battered timber from axe strikes and clutching talons. I tested the wiped soot stains from mucky fingers and solstice bonfires for permanence.
On the second day, I stood in under his aluminium eaves; felt its cold detachment, its technical form cantilevered, bolted, and partially clad. I hung from its reflective frame set on white timber, peering back into the space. A counterpoint to the flag opposite, the framed space resulting from the table above. The frame itself a mediator between the room and world beyond, holding back the everyday chaos. Within it a realm of references – order, stability, contingency – echoing the exposed structure of O’Brien’s unembellished Killan Farmhouse.
On the third day, I came to know the concrete ‘caryatids’ in turn, each poised loosely throughout the space. Two within reach, standing proud of the large florescent flag they suspend. Not smooth but rough. The final, perched above surveying the room, bending its supporting countertop. I spent time befriending the cylindrical caryatids, each in their varying figurative roles. One grey and smooth to overlook the space. One greener, more exposed, perched on a low bench. The third, white, straighter, standing proud to greet you at the door.
On the fourth day, I pinned myself to the flag. Having been welcomed into the room under the skin of its embrace, I climbed up into its central square and waited. An ironic protest of embraced risk. Surprisingly soft to the touch. The centre point, I thought. The crux. From there all became visible but not clear. Drawn in from below by its strange ordinariness, people came and went, admiring or confused by the world it reflected above. High visibility from all points. Room, lobby, Liffey. ‘You have arrived, come in within, I am here’.
On the fifth day, I disappeared into O’Brien’s poem, ‘House’. Taped roughly to the wall, it permeated through all my prior thoughts: ‘I am home to those who are for life, I am closed to business, avarice and fakery’. ‘Stand in under my eaves – I am resilient. Come in within’. The poem an expression of compassion and empathy. ‘I have no lover, and so will love myself, one block upon the other, I am my own gift’. Descriptions of materiality and place linked to a subaltern history of craft. ‘My roof is of flat stones stitched to larch beams’, ‘I am whitewashed in lime, not smooth but rough’. ‘A warm fort of horsehair, lime, and dust’.
On the sixth day, it all clicked.
I stood at the centre of the room on the seventh and final day, held by the room itself. Pure coalescence, from the senses to the mind. I felt the nascent vagaries, understood the adjacencies. I saw the room’s light constantly shift and transition with the world beyond, spread across the space by the hanging flag. Its form streaked and lined in sharp direct daylight, diffused and silky in low evening sun, dappled and fluttering in fast traffic. The flag allowing the viewer to inhabit the world, the world coming to inhabit the flag. Brilliant white, tranquil red, deep purple. Sound echoed through the space in layers. Traffic lights ticked outside, directions repeated in the lobby, murmurings whispered within the room. Alone, the room is contemplative. A direct interaction of visitor, matter, and space. Crowded, it becomes intensely intimate. Shifting back and forth, hurried readings, muttered apologies. A welcomed embracing return to a physical sensory world.
I have now lived for a week in a nook of Tom O’Brien’s mind. More specifically, in a five-by-five-metre cell, ostensibly bound to a small room off Bachelor’s Walk, yet infinite and free in its conceptual impact and metaphysical scope. O’Brien is an interventionalist. Bordering the physical and spiritual worlds, he engages with the interconnectedness of material occurrence and process. Interested in modality, he crafts atmospheres of life. Through his work, he brings a unique spatial history and personal context in an ongoing attempt to find a shared foundation. Yet, in the spaces between, he leaves enough room for our spatial past to inhabit, our personal context to morph, our interpretations and misconceptions to take root. These are some of the things I discovered during my week within the blurred boundaries of Tom O’Brien’s mind.
Today I found my way out of the exhibition, but realising I remained in Tom’s world, was unsure whether I should turn left or right, or whether it mattered at all. I now live in a universe incredibly boring and strange, perfectly optimistic and empathetic.
Alex Curtis, from Dublin, is a final year architecture student in the Dublin School of Architecture, TUD. Alex has been engaging with academic and practice-led means of determining how architecture and design can impact upon the way we live and think.
For more information on Momemtum see our event page.
For more information on our Emerging Architecture Writers Programme click HERE.